Subsequent to the start of the Iraq War om 2003, Western analysts spent a prodigious amount of time and energy debating an “alternative” Iraq policy that never had any chance of succeeding in the real world and which therefore served as a major distraction in the overall discussion of policy options: A three-way soft partition of the country. Today, with the sudden upsurge of Western interest in Libya – and with a general explosion of simplistic punditry focusing on the ethno-sectarian geography of the broader Middle East – it is only a question of time before think tankers in the West will discover certain tripartite patterns in Libyan history, too, and use them as a basis for discussions of possible ways forward. However, even a cursory and preliminary reading of Libya’s history should make it possible to preempt at least some of the scenarios that seem destined to appear in future discussions.
Regular readers of this column will be familiar with the main elements in an historian’s refutation of the soft-partition option for Iraq. Briefly, the soft partition scheme as it emerged in the post-2003 period ignored at least three important historical facts: 1. The three-way division of Iraq in late Ottoman times did not follow ethno-sectarian lines (Baghdad had most Shiites and Mosul was mixed) and was never complete (Baghdad served as a proto-capital for all three provinces in certain spheres of administration including military and judicial affairs); 2. The three-way partition had existed for some thirty years only (circa 1880-1914) before which there were long periods of administrative unity in a single province (Baghdad); 3. Far from being an “artificial” term, the concept of “Iraq” was in fact frequently employed by the local population, Ottoman administrators and foreigners alike in the nineteenth century. In sum, then, the post-2003 soft-partition scheme for Iraq had no historical basis, meaning that on top of the numerous ethical and practical considerations involved in its implementation, it seemed unlikely to find any popular resonance even if an attempt had been made to push it through.
When it comes to Libya, unlike Iraq, the country actually does have a history of twentieth-century federalism as well as complete territorial fragmentation. During the first years after independence, from 1951 to 1963, Libya had a federal state structure which among other things featured extensive taxation powers for the three federal regions (Benghazi in the east, Tripoli in the centre-north and Fezzan in the south). That tripartite federal structure, in turn, was based on complete administrative separation in the 1940s, when developments in the Second World War and the ouster of the Italians in 1942 had led to the creation of three separate zones of occupation with their own administrations. Although the ethno-sectarian geography of these lands did not correlate perfectly with the tripartite administrative configuration, Benghazi stood somewhat out thanks to a strongly influential puritan Sufi movement (the Sanusiyya), whereas non-Arab (particularly Berber) influences were said to be somewhat stronger in the west and the south. In contrast to the situation in Libya, Iraq remained a centralised state from the formal inception of the monarchy in 1921 until the beginnings of experiments with Kurdish autonomy in the 1970s.
On the other hand, though, if we go further back in history, the parallels between Iraq and Libya are quite striking. Just like the territory of modern-day Iraq was administratively unified for a great deal in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, a political entity almost perfectly coterminous with the modern state of Libya existed in the same period: The Barbary state of Tripoli. Contemporary accounts of North Africa in the early nineteenth century almost invariably focus on four dominant political entities in the region: Morocco, Alger, Tunis and Tripoli. Headed by the Albanian Karamanlis – a group of military officers that broke with the Ottomans and as such another parallel to Iraq where the Georgian mamelukes reigned – the Tripoli state engaged in lucrative piracy activities in the Mediterranean that enabled it to subjugate, albeit tenuously, the territory to the south and east of Tripoli (incidentally, those piracies also brought them into conflict with the United States). After the Ottoman reconquista in 1835 (the timing being another Iraq parallel) that same geographical area remained mostly unified as a single vilayet until the 1880s. At that point, Cyrenaica was definitively separated as a distinctive unit. By way of contrast, Iraq oscillated between unified rule and various subdivision formulas throughout the nineteenth century.
Unlike Iraq, there is less continuity as far as nomenclature is concerned in the case of Libya. Rather than using the name “Libya”, many contemporary sources simply referred to these lands as Trablus al-Gharb or “Tripoli of the West”, i.e. to distinguish it from the “eastern”/Syrian Tripoli in what is Lebanon today. For example, despite the formal differentiation in the late Ottoman period between the vilayet of Tripoli and the special administrative district of Benghazi, the Ottoman historian Mahmud Naci referred to Benghazi as “part of Tripoli” in his discussion of the Sanusiyya. Similarly, an early Libyan historian, Ahmad Mahmud, referred to the “Cyrenaican desert of Tripoli” as the birthplace of Umar al-Mukhtar (who would go on to become a famous Libyan nationalist) and to Fezzan as “an oasis that belongs to Tripoli”. Conversely, in the case of Iraq, the term “Iraq” appears far more frequently in sources from the nineteenth century and was often used interchangeably with the greater Baghdad vilayet. In the Libyan case, then, it seems clear that the Italian occupation from 1912 onwards was instrumental in introducing a new term for referring to the country, even though also the Italian administration for some years featured administrative differentiation between Tripoli and Cyrenaica. Ultimately, the Italians opted to organise the entire country in four perfetturas dependent upon Tripoli, meaning that centripetal forces once more came to the fore.
Exactly as in the case of Iraq, Libyan historiography does include a trend that has been dismissive about the whole idea of continuity from the old mameluke days to the era of the modern state. But whereas constructivist narratives of Iraqi history mostly consist of the unempirical musings of armchair commentators who have never held an actual Ottoman document in their hands, when it comes to Libya there are a number of eloquent, well-researched and indigenous accounts of the creation of the modern state that in various ways question the paradigm of Tripoli as the natural focus of a centralised state incorporating Fezzan and Cyrenaica. By way of example, Ali Abdullatif Ahmida has written a largely constructivist version of the emergence of the modern Libyan state in which he goes far in embracing an “artificiality” paradigm. In particular, in order to counterbalance Tripoli-centric narratives, Ahmida accords prominence to a small political entity in the far south of the country around Fezzan: The state of Awlad Muhammad which existed between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. A similar revisionist take can be seen in the work of Muhammad Mustafa Bazamah, which focuses on Cyrenaica or Barqa as it is usually called in Arabic.
Ahmida’s and Bazamah’s contributions come across as fresh challenges against teleological versions of Libya’s modern history. Nonetheless, they can perhaps themselves be challenged for magnifying the importance of the south and the east, which after all were dwarfed by Tripoli in terms of population numbers: Around the time of formal unification, Tripolitania had around 700,000 inhabitants; Cyrenaica, 300,000; Fezzan, 60,000. In accounts from the early 1950s it is actually French protestations against the amalgamation of the three occupation zones into a single state that loom largest in the sources. “Libya is an artificial and sterile country”, declared pro-imperial forces in Paris in December 1949, exactly at the juncture when the idea of formal Libyan unification was beginning to gain traction in international circles.
This point in turn relates to what is perhaps the greatest contrast between Iraq and Libya as far as territorial stability is concerned: Whereas both Tripoli and Baghdad presented a certain degree of continuity as proto-capitals for greater Libyan and Iraqi regions between the 1700s and the 1900s, Libya experienced a unique degree of both informal and formal territorial fragmentation during the first half of the twentieth century – above all as the result of different legacies of interaction with foreign, imperial powers in different regions of the country. Firstly, Sanusi resistance against the Italians provided for anti-colonial sentiment that translated into regional patterns: Cyrenaica, anti-Italian; Tripolitania, less so. Later, as the result of developments in the Second World War, formal fragmentation ensued in the shape of three different zones of occupation: Fezzan (French), Tripolitania (British), and Cyrenaica (separated from Tripoli and reconstituted as a single entity under the British, with special guarantees for future independence).
For a few years after 1945 – an interlude caused first and foremost by procrastination in the international community regarding the disposal of the Italian colonies generally – it seemed likely that Fezzan would become attached to other French colonial possessions in North Africa; that Cyrenaica might come under some kind of British tutelage; and that Tripolitania might possibly even revert to Italian overlordship. Despite growing agitation in favour of unity among the Libyans themselves, it was probably only a certain anti-imperialist surge in the newly founded United Nations as well as a general preference in London for more informal and economic forms of empire that eventually consecrated the formula that would prevail: The unification of all three zones of occupation in the single kingdom of Libya.
During this process, what happened to the Sanusiyya-dominated Cyrenaica presents certain interesting parallels – and non-parallels as well – to the fate of Kurdish independence dreams after the First World War, which were basically crushed between the treaties of Sevres in 1920 and Lausanne in 1923. In the 1940s, despite some common cooperation against the Italians in the 1920s, there was much to suggest that a degree of apartness had developed between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania as the result of different trajectories during the years of Italian rule, and with the Cyrenaicans in particular increasingly warming up to the prospect of having some kind of separate political entity with a privileged connection to the British Empire. For example, a representation by Umar Mansur in 1945 called for Cyrenaica to become “an independent country” under Sayyid Idris, the Sanusi leader. Unlike the Kurds in Iraq, however – and despite the preferences of the numerically dominant Tripolitanians for some kind of more tightly integrated state – the Cyrenaicans managed to provide national leadership (King Idris) once the idea of a unified Libya gained international support. They went on to dominate the federation that was subsequently formed and provided their own input to the terms of that federation, even though there were also external influences at work including UN “experts” (in a parallel to post-2003 Iraq, one of them was a Dutchman, Adrian Pelt). Of course, in the case of Iraq after the First World War, the monarch – Faisal I – was imported from Hijaz and a centralist formula of government adopted.
In Libya, there generally seem to have been more cross-cutting cleavages than in Iraq. Maybe some Cyrenaicans appeared parochial at times, but after all much of their Sanusi heritage was pan-Islamist rather than regionalist, stretching into Sudan and parts of the Sahara. Historically and geographically, Cyrenaica was actually closest to the heart of the Arab world and centres like Cairo, with some authorities even claiming that the grand division line between the eastern and western parts of the Arab world – Machrek and Maghreb – cut Libya in two, with Cyrenaica belonging to the Machrek and Tripoli to the Maghreb. Also , it seems that Cairo-educated young men of Cyrenaica played a key role in converting Sayyid Idris from a narrow Cyrenaica-oriented approach to a broader one focused on all of Libya, and may have played a role when the king first began considering a move from a federal to a unitary formula of government in the mid-1950s (this was eventually achieved in 1963, subsequent to the discovery of oil in 1959). These are all factors that would seem to put the Cyrenaicans in a different position in Libya than what the Kurds experienced in Iraq, the superficial similarities of the size of the communities and the degree of territorial concentration notwithstanding.
On the balance, then, one senses that despite the upheavals of the twentieth century – and the efforts of erudite and articulate scholars in the constructivist tradition – the vision of a centralised state with Tripoli as its capital eventually prevailed in twentieth-century Libya, much like what happened to Baghdad in Iraq. Today, the regionally entrenched opposition in Benghazi appears to be going out of its way to emphasise its adherence to the idea of Tripoli as the undisputed capital of Libya, although it should perhaps be remembered that the monarchy flag used by these opponents of Gadhafi is also originally a federalism flag. But, as the Second World War showed, too much external intervention can easily disturb local equilibriums and propel artificial schemes to the forefront. Left to its own, Libya might well eventually gravitate towards Tripoli in one way or another, but with foreign intervention, the question is a lot more open. It should be remembered that the UN Security Council adopted for Libya provides international powers with a much bigger toolbox than what Western powers had in Iraq in the 1990s, when the no-fly-zone had no legal basis (except a fictional exegesis of UNSC 688) and when suggestions of a no-drive-zone was never on the table in a serious way (even though the Clinton administration seemed to be trying to create one in 1996). Accordingly, as happened during the Second World War, Libya may in the future once more come to experience formal territorial fragmentation and the emergence of enclaves of the kind one would otherwise only expect in settings where there are more enduring legacies of truly indigenous separatist schemes, like Yemen.